We’ve talked about the agency pitch before, but when I came across this Marketing Profs post by Doug Stern and Jaclyn Landon, I thought about the fact that we haven’t really focused a post on writing a proposal, and new business proposal basics.

Doug and Jaclyn’s post is called Six Keys to Writing a Great Proposal and they preface their steps effectively below:

However you got there, you’re looking for ways to create a proposal that sets you and your company favorably apart. Ways that capture the great things you have to offer. And do you no harm. Here are six suggested best-practices intended to not only maximize your chances to stand out and land the job but also manage the risks.

Ad Agency New Business Proposal Basics-6 Steps

The six new business proposal basics, abbreviated, are below, and you should click on the link at the end of the post to see the entire piece (you may have to register, but it’s free.)

Final note: as the title of this post mentions, some of these steps may be elementary to many of you, but I find it never hurts to revisit the basics.

1. Be responsive
If your proposal is the result of an RFP, you’ve been given a recipe. Follow it precisely.
Well, at least be very cautious about how much you improvise. Remember that you’re getting points for showing how well you color inside the lines—and how well you listen.

The paradox is that RFPs often ask (or expect) you to demonstrate your creativity, problem-solving skills, and the like. And you want to break out of the pack, somehow. The trick is to find the middle path, one that fills in the RFP’s required blanks while showing that your right hemisphere is alive and well.

No RFP? There’s more freedom if you’re not working within the framework of an RFP. There’s also more responsibility.

2. Use plain English
Not all RFPs are the same. But even the most technical Web-development or civil-engineering proposal had better be readable and engaging. That’s especially true if techies and non-techies are sharing the buying decision, which is often the case.

So write the way you speak. Avoid jargon, unless it’s responsive to something in the RFP (and even then, use it sparingly). Let yourself connect with your reader the same way you would if you were face-to-face.

3. Use your whole brain
Being responsive is a given. Using the right words will help, too, by making sure your proposal gets read and is remembered well.

So pay attention to the way your proposals look and feel.

• Consult a graphics professional to design a template for you. • Use pictures that help tell your story. Studies say that an arresting graphic is the first thing the eye goes to on a page. Extra points go to any image with people in it.• Write captions for any images. They’re the second thing we see on a page. • Use “boxed” callouts, another eye-catching device. Direct-mail experts understand this tactic.• Use the back cover. That’s where magazines sell their most expensive ad space.

Do any one of those suggestions, and you’ve gone a long way toward setting yourself apart.

4. Don’t overcook it
It’s tempting to really make it less about you and more about your prospect. The keyword here is “caution.”

You may, for example, believe it’s a nice touch to put the prospect’s logo on the cover of your proposal. But that can easily backfire unless you’re using the same high graphic standards your prospect uses.

5. Buy smart
Maybe you can justify buying some of the great proposal software out there. When chosen wisely, proposal software is a great tool, with easily customizable templates that save valuable time spent formatting proposals.

But it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. A little research up front will help you find the best software for your needs, saving you time and money along the way.

6. Remember the context
Proposals are often just table stakes. They get you in the game and, maybe, keep you in.
Winning means scoring well on a wide range of criteria—price, chemistry, trust, and a bunch of other tangibles and intangibles. A written proposal levels the playing field (a little) and promotes apples-to-apples comparisons among the competition.

A great proposal will serve you well, especially if you say you strive to be the best at everything you do. If the reality of what you submit doesn’t align with your claims, then you’re really selling upstream.

In other words, anything less than outstanding fails. It fails to set you apart. It fails to demonstrate your excellence. It fails to give you an edge at a time when you don’t know what cards everybody else is holding.

Click here to read Six Keys to Writing a Great Proposal.

I'm the VP of Sales at RSW/US. We specialize in working with services firms to help drive and close new business-if you need help with that, email me at What I actually do: drive sales efforts to bring ad agencies and services firms on board with RSW, create content around successful new business tactics and help drive RSW/US marketing objectives, including social media channels, blog content, webinars, video and speaking engagements. Dig it.